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Healthcare Advertising Agency: What to Look For Before You Hire

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

marketing Jenga blocksPerhaps the single, best practice advice about hiring a healthcare advertising agency is to start the process right now. Sooner is better than later. Super-smart management rule number one is to invoke the power of foresight—jump to the front of the growth curve.

What’s more, it doesn’t take a visionary to know that the selection process and initial creative ramp-up will, inevitably, take longer than anybody would like. If you don’t currently have an agency, or if you have never done a search-and-selection previously, it’s not a quick and easy process.

There will be some false starts. Reality intrudes. And unpredictable stuff happens before effective traction sets in. There are dozens of things to look for before you hire, but nobody is really at their best—not the client, not the service company—when energy and resources are sapped into doing catch up work.

So, to help smooth unforeseen speed bumps, here are a few ideas and things to look for before you hire a healthcare advertising agency.

What to look for in a healthcare advertising agency

“Don't hire an agency. Hire a culture” 

There’s no strict formula for guidance from the pages of AdvertisingAge, but our experience (and that of many others) would definitely agree. “The core values of an agency will foretell the kind of relationship you are likely to have. Favor agencies that are collaborative, innovative and proactive. The mark of a good agency is often in the cheerfulness and energy in its corridors.”

Is the chemistry right? What is the vision of the prospective agency? How does technology support what they are doing today and what they will be doing in the future? Can you detect professional pride in achievements and a forward-looking vision within the advertising agency?

Hire to serve your present and future needs

Many marketing and communications agencies have a primary strength or skill set. But some clients and professionals fail to clearly match their service requirements with the core competency of the agency. For example, there are about 10 or more types of service companies with “agency” in their name.

A few of these—mixing and matching capabilities—include Art and Design, Brand or Branding, Digital and Internet, Direct Marketing, Media Planning and Placement, Public Affairs, PR or Community Relations, Sales Support, Social Media, Traditional Agency and others.

If you aren’t comfortable with the various service types, or if you aren’t clear about your needs, direction and objectives, begin with an evaluation that charts your goals and helps clarify a strong matchup.

Think long-term investment, not short-term patchwork

Working with a healthcare advertising agency is a business partnership where effectiveness grows over time. The best relationships are not small or quick project assignments. The best hiring decision will assume a one to three-year engagement at the start. You are growing strength through teamwork.

A great agency isn’t hungry for just any new business

A robust selection process works in two directions. A client looks at an agency, and the agency looks at the client. And a discriminating agency will recognize—and possibly decline—new business when it is not a proper and healthy fit on both sides of the table.

Create a process to resolve sensitive issues

Every client-agency relationship will eventually run headlong into a speed bump. It could be regarding budget, timely deliverables, personality friction, or any of a hundred large or small issues. Consider an early resolution process to prevent issues from festering and/or exploding later.

Agree on the definition of meaningful results

The best relationships are founded on mutually understood expectations and goals. Beware of an offer of “guaranteed” results, but every advertising element should include strategies, tactics and goals. Results need to be clear, specific and measurable.

Only the apples-to-apples experience really counts

Look for a depth of experience in the marketing, advertising and communications areas that are most like your own. Market areas will differ, and plans will vary with market circumstances. But the fundamental healthcare advertising agency experience that you want is a blend of your present and future needs—and having an experience track record to take you where you need to go.

Caution: A firm with limited experience is learning on-the-job and is wasting your resources. Further, glittering, shiny ad industry awards are not a reflection of specific experience or measurable results. Dig deeper.

Define due diligence and do it diligently

A list of references is a standard element, but be alert to two particular issues. First, confirm that the references are reasonably current and that they represent work or assignments similar to the experience you want or need. Second, actively follow up with specific references, industry reputation and quantifiable results. If you’re not comfortable with the reference list, ask for others.

Bring the main players together

Test the prospective chemistry among the prospective team members. Define who the decision makers will be on both sides and be clear about everyone’s role and responsibilities.

Don’t decide based exclusively on the price tag

Bargain-basement prices are cheap for a reason. Instead, look for measures of strong value. The “lowest bidder” is a poor barometer and it seldom reflects the best work. By definition, responsible advertising agencies have a fiduciary responsibility to work within a reasonable budget. Success—and the continued business relationship—is measured in part by their ability to produce maximum results with available resources.

Ultimately, you hire for trust

Any rock-solid business relationship survives and thrives because of mutual trust. Foremost among many considerations, creative skills and experience, trust is vital. Often, it may not be immediately evident and needs to be earned over time.

Start early, take your time, and—like any important addition to your management team—be confident that it’s a good fit. It’s nearly impossible to come out ahead with a “make-do” or “only adequate” selection. Carefully consider trust, experience, reputation and culture, but there’s no payback in compromise when hiring a healthcare advertising agency.

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